The Experts Guide to Brewing Tea

Image of brewing Tea

So you've progressed beyond the basics of tea? You've started tasting different types of tea and now want to start brewing tea like a tea connoisseur?

To that end, you will find all the information you need to brew the perfect cup of tea in the following sections.

Loose Leaf Tea vs. Tea Bags

The very first thing that you need to decide is whether you want loose leaf tea or tea bags. Now, although your initial reaction might be to go for the easier, tea bag option if you want something even resembling a decent cup of tea, then you will need to ditch the tea bags and go with the loose leaf option.

(By tea bags, we mean the generic inexpensive store-bought variety. Not the tea bags to be found in specialty tea shops which are comprised of loose-leaf tea.)

Why you should go for the loose leaf option;

  • Tea bags are filled with tea dust and small shavings of tea. To get these, it can definitely be said that the tea industry does not use the best quality teas. (The best quality teas are reserved to sell as loose leaf.) In fact, tea bags are filled mainly with inferior grade teas and whatever is left over from processing other teas. In other words - the worst of the worst is what normally goes into the generic, less expensive tea bags.
  • The tea that comes in tea bags, are also blended from a number of different teas. This means that you would be sampling tea from different tea estates - and since not all teas were created equal, you wouldn't necessarily be getting the same grade of tea across the board. In other words, some of those teas will be vastly inferior.
  • For a good cup of tea, tea leaves also need space to expand (explained in more detail in the following section), and a small cramped tea bag does not allow this to happen.
  • The main reason why you should choose loose leaf teas over tea bags however, is due to the fact that tea leaves have certain chemical properties and essential oils in them that helps to create a flavorful cup of tea. When the tea leaves are broken or powdered however, these oils etc. tend to evaporate and you end up with little to no flavor in the leaf.

The Different Grades of Black Tea

The first thing that you need to know about tea grades is that tea comes in many forms and varieties and these depend on the type of tea and the region where it was grown.

That said, most of the teas you will come across will be called "Orange Pekoe". This is not because it has the taste of an orange, it is simply the name given to a Pekoe tea leaf (pronounced "peck-oh"), of a certain size. It is only this size of tea leaf which is used in "OP" teas.

(And no, they don't sit around sorting each tea leaf one by one and comparing it to a certain size chart! Instead a sieve is used to sort the tea leaves which have been harvested. Tea leaves bigger than a certain size will not go through this sieve and therefore will not be used in the manufacture of Orange Pekoe teas.)

There are a number of different grades used to define black teas, and this list can run on for a long time. Given below is a list of the teas that you can run in to.

Before we begin however, just a few clarifications;

  • OP - Orange Pekoe: everything to do with the leaf size and not the flavor of the tea!
  • T - Tippy: meaning that the tea contains tips from the tea plant. (The youngest of the leaves)
  • G and F - Golden or Flowery: the tea contains buds or tips that have been plucked whilst very young, and have a golden color to them, hence the names Golden and Flowery. (The "F" in this instance is used somewhere in the beginning such as "FBOP - Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe")
  • F - Fannings: also known as dust or tea particles, and used mainly for tea bags. (This "F" is used at the end of the grade such as "OF - Orange Fannings")
  • B - Broken: the tea leaves are a shade larger than what you would find in fannings.

So, some of the grade definitions you might find on tea are;

  • OP - Orange Pekoe
  • BP - Broken Pekoe
  • OF - Orange Fannings
  • GOF - Golden Orange Fannings
  • BOP - Broken Orange Pekoe
  • FOP - Flowery Orange Pekoe
  • FBOP - Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe
  • GFOP - Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
  • FBOPF - Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings
  • TGBOP - Tippy Golden Broken Orange Pekoe
  • TGFOP - Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
  • FTGFOP1 - Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, Grade 1
  • SFTGFOP1 - Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, Grade 1

The last two grades of tea are some of the finest tea to be found in the world and carry an equally fine price tag!

Obviously the higher up the tea ladder you go, the better the quality of tea you will get. Also the more you stay away from Fannings and even BOP teas, your tea will taste that much better.

As far as possible you need to get your hands on the full leaf tea varieties, or the ones with minimal breakage. What this means for your pot of tea is that the essential oils and chemicals found in the tea leaf are still trapped within it, and have dried only very minimally, giving you the best possible taste from each tea leaf.

But then again, everyone's palate is different, and the best way to find what you like is to go through a few different types of teas and settle on something that your taste buds enjoy.

Teapot, Jug, or Mug?

This is a crucial question when making tea, as the one of the important factors you need to be aware of, is that tea leaves need space to unfurl and expand. Also, the oxygen in the water needs to be able to interact with the tea leaves, and for all of these things to happen your tea leaves need space.

So, depending on how many cups of tea you are making, you will want to take a tea pot or a jug that will hold your expanding tea leaves as well as the necessary amount of water.

To this extent, you will want to stay away from using small cramped mugs, and instead arm yourself with a small tea pot if you're making tea enough only for one cup.

Or alternately you can use a coffee press to brew your tea in, as long as you allow the tea leaves the necessary space to unfurl and expand in. This means that you will need to refrain from using the "press" part of your coffee press until the time is right for you to strain and pour your tea.

For a tea like Oolong, you will find that specialty teapots called "Gaiwan" are available to help you brew your tea.

Boiling Water or Not?

So, now that you've gone and bought your loose leaf tea, and found the right container to brew it in, you might want to try your hand at brewing that perfect cup of tea. This will of course involve a few things to prepare beforehand, or to know beforehand, such as the fact that some teas (not black tea) needs to be prepared with water that is just below boiling point.

These teas, although they will taste alright prepared with boiling water will not reach their full potential unless prepared in the proper way.

To that extent, it is always good to know that,

  • Black tea - always needs boiling water (100°C / 212°F)
  • Green tea - needs water that has been boiled and cooled slightly, or brought to below boiling point. (71°C / 160°F)
  • White tea - is the same as green tea, but at a slightly higher temperature. (82°C / 180°F)
  • Oolong tea - needs to be closer to boiling point than either the white or the green teas. (88°C / 190°F)
  • Pu-erh tea - just like black tea, this tea also needs boiling water to brew in. (100°C / 212°F)

You need to remember that these are not exact temperatures to boil your water or even to brew your tea. These are only guidelines that you can use to help make the perfect cup of tea.

Also, when you are bringing water to a complete boil, do not boil it for too long. This will deplete the oxygen in the water too much, and your tea won't taste as nice. This is also the reason why you need to use fresh water every time you are making tea - because with repeated boiling the oxygen in the water gets depleted.

Note: Before adding water to your tea leaves, or indeed adding tea leaves to your teapot, you should first heat or warm the pot by pouring in a little bit of your boiled water and swirling it around gently. This will warm the teapot nicely and allow the tea leaves to begin steeping at the right temperature, from the beginning.

(Discard this water before adding in the tea leaves and more water.)

Steeping Times

Just like boiling times vary for different teas, steeping times also vary. The steeping times given below can be used as general guidelines and don't need to be followed down to the very second.

  • Black tea - steep between 3-5 minutes (depending on how light or dark you like your tea).
  • Green tea - steep between 2-3 minutes.
  • White tea - steep between 1-3 minutes. (No more as white teas are very delicate teas.)
  • Oolong tea - steep between 3-5 minutes. (This applies to both the rolled Oolong tea and the leaf Oolong tea.)
  • Pu-erh tea - steep between 3-5 minutes. (This applies to raw, half-baked and full-baked pu-erh teas.)

Brewing for any length of time less than those stated will not bring out the flavor of the tea, and brewing for any length of time more than what has been stated will make your tea bitter.

If you want a darker tea, don't brew the tea for longer but add more tea leaves to your pot. If you prefer a lighter tea, then lessen the amount of tea leaves you add to your pot, don't reduce on the brewing time.

Sugar, Honey, Milk, or Nothing?

After brewing your tea, you will need to strain it into a cup or another teapot so that the tea leaves don't brew for longer than necessary. To do this, you will need to buy yourself a tea strainer which can be found in many shops.

The next thing you need to do in pursuit of your perfect cup of tea, is to add sugar, honey or milk to taste, and drink. Of course, if you're really a connoisseur of tea, you will add little to nothing to your tea, but then again, not everyone can be a connoisseur.

The main thing is that you enjoy your tea, and that you also enjoy the process of making your tea. It is through this that you will rediscover the art of making tea.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is not intended to replace the diagnosis, treatment, consultation and services of a qualified Medical Practitioner. All information presented is in summary form and intended only for informational purposes. Always seek immediate medical attention for any illness you may have and never disregard the advice from qualified Medical Practitioners as something you have read on this site (or related sites) could be misinterpreted.

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